What kind of government for Israel, or third election?

(Some questions at the end about comparative context. Help, please!)

This Wednesday night, Benny Gantz’s period as designated formateur expires. His odds of successfully forming a government look bleak. Nothing has changed to make it any easier than when I last wrote on the topic of government-formation options. And at least one thing has changed to make it harder. It is important to understand that a third election (April 2019, Sept. 2019, and potentially March 2020) is the default if no agreement is reached. There is actually a 21-day period after Gantz’s mandate expires before the election becomes automatic, but there’s scant reason to believe the next 21 days would result in an agreement. (During this 21-day period, it requires 61 Knesset members’ signatures to nominate a PM. Fat chance.)

The change that makes forming a government harder than it was in April or even immediately after the September election is that the bloc that incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) prefers has held tenaciously together. This is the combine of Likud, the two ultra-orthodox lists, and the nationalists that formed the government up until the April election. This bloc lost seats in April, relative to the 2015 election, and lost quite a few more in September. It was a majority when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was with it, but he pulled out in December, 2018, and has so far adamantly refused to rejoin it from April till now.

However, all the other party leaders in the bloc have steadfastly said that Netanyahu negotiates for all of them. This has foreclosed, so far, any of the rumored defections whereby some party in the bloc would join Gantz and Liberman to help establish a majority coalition without Likud. In fact, one of the member parties of the bloc actually folded itself into Likud, with Naftali Bennet getting the post of Defense Minister in the deal. This move does not change the fact that the bloc has only 55 seats, six short of the minimum needed for a majority government. But it closed off one potential, if unlikely, path that might have led to a breaking of the deadlock.

It seems that the idea of a minority government of Blue and White (the list Gantz heads), which would have to have the support of both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint [Arab] List, is actually being taken semi-seriously. It still seems unlikely, but Gantz just might go for it if late talks with Netanyahu do not produce an agreement. The best evidence that it is being taken seriously is that Netanyahu has gone verbally ballistic–even by his standards–over the possibility. And while the idea has not been endorsed by Gantz, he has not denied it, either. A government needs only a plurality of Knesset votes to be installed. In other words, abstentions do not count against it.

Still, even though the Joint List would not have cabinet positions in such a case (and thus would not be “in government”), the prospect is fraught with difficulty. Not, I would stress, because the parties are Arab, per se. But because they potentially can be classified as anti-system parties, or as a semi-loyal opposition. Parties that do not accept the fundamental character of the state rarely get any kind of formalized role in backing a minority government in any democracy. (I invite examples, but I can’t think of any.) And it would probably need to be formalized–in a “confidence and supply” agreement–because of one of the ways a government can collapse and early elections be mandated: If a government can’t get supply (i.e., pass a budget). If such an arrangement could be agreed, then a minority government can be stable. It takes 61 votes–a majority–in a constructive no-confidence vote electing a replacement government in order to remove an incumbent cabinet. But the problem is getting it installed and with a supply lifeline in place.

As has been the case since April, the most logical outcome is a “unity” government. But Gantz ran on replacing Netanyahu (policy differences are scant) and he and, even more forcefully, his co-leaders have claimed they will not serve under Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the incumbent is claiming a right to go first as PM in a rotation deal. It would be a little odd to give the priority to the one who came second in votes, though his bloc is indeed the larger one. That bloc again… Netanyahu also wants all the partners to be included, which implies Blue and White would be just an appendage to a right-wing government. B&W got lots of votes from leftist voters, despite what we would normally call a center-right party positioning. So Gantz’s lack of enthusiasm is understandable.

Of course, Netanyahu wants to go first because he still may be indicted at some point in the near future. His time horizon is a bit short! B&W might need to insist on a legal change that would ensure Netanyahu would step down if indicted, but one can imagine this is going to be a hard pledge to extract.

Another possibility not to be ruled out is Liberman going back to the right-wing bloc. He has dug in hard enough that I actually don’t think this is likely. But if he gets compromises he can sell to his voters, he might do it. He does not exactly have a record of being the most consistent politician.

A third election might not change much. The five polls so far since the last election have not shown much movement of voter support. What movement they have shown has been somewhat downward for the Bibi Bloc in the three most recent polls. It may be relevant here that only the first of these polls showed Liberman’s party losing ground, and the two most recent ones show him gaining one. (The second and fifth polls in the sequence are by the same pollster.)

Will there be a deal? Who knows!

Finally, this all leads me to some questions:

  1. In other parliamentary democracies, how common is it for parties that ran separately in an election to negotiate as a bloc (delegating the largest party thereof as negotiator for them all) after the election?
  2. How common is it for parties that could be classified as “anti-system” or “semi-loyal” to be the outside support parties to a minority cabinet?
  3. Are there any other cases of something that may yet happen here, in which the one designated as formateur agrees to be in a cabinet but not its (first) head?

22 thoughts on “What kind of government for Israel, or third election?

  1. Looks like Israel needs to raise its electoral threshold a bit higher to reduce the number of tiny, pivotal parties.

    For question #2, would not the Andreotti “historic compromise” governments late-1970s Italy (in which the Communists backed a DC minority) be an example?

    I seem to remember somewhere reading that these were also called the “governments of not-no-confidence” to underscore the limits to the PCI’s backing.

    • Yes, I was thinking the “historic compromise” could be a relevant comparison.

      I would argue (and have, in print) against raising the threshold any further. It has not helped before as much as proponents expected, and the real problem is not that there are little parties, but that even a third of the seats is now pretty much out of reach. It’s mid-sized parties that are keeping up the fragmentation, not the little ones.

      Check out the graphs I made on this, which are in my forthcoming chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society.

  2. Unless I’m missing something, the DC won 263 of 630 seats and 135 of 315 seats in the Senate in the 1976 election and then governed alone. The PCI supported from the outside, as you say, without portfolios. How were these not minority governments? Are you making a technical distinction (the best kind) based on a vote of investiture? I think the DC won the investiture votes due to most of the “opposition,” including the PCI, abstaining.

  3. Couldn’t Blue and White tolerate a minority government of Right Wing Parties similar to Ireland in that Fine Gael with Independents being tolerated by Fianna Fail? Of course they all want Netanyahu to be out of office, but perhaps someone else other than Gantz and Netanyahu can be PM.

    • I think that would be suicide for B&W. They empower Netanyahu and his bloc without the promised rotation (which has been part of all “unity” proposals I have heard of), or any portfolios. And neither partners nor support parties get to dictate another party’s leadership, so if Likud is in government, Bibi is the PM or other senior minister from the party–unless, of course, Likud itself decides otherwise.

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  5. “2 – How common is it for parties that could be classified as “anti-system” or “semi-loyal” to be the outside support parties to a minority cabinet?”

    Perhaps the Portuguese “Geringonça” (a minority government of the Socialist Party with the support of Communists and the Left Bloc); the center-left governments in Denmark have also usually the parliamentary support of the Red-Green Aliance; and we have (a bit different, but perhaps even more difficult in theory) the French governments with the participation of the Communists.

    For the other side of the spectrum, there was the government of Fernando Tambroni in Italy (1960), a government of Christian Democracy supported in parliament by the neofscist Italian Social Movement,

  6. Well, Arye Deri is suggesting direct elections for PM. I don’t know how that’s supposed to work out logistically, either in terms of organizing elections (which would somehow be in lieu of a third round of parliamentary elections) or ensuring that the elected PM has the confidence of the Knesset.

    I think if they do something similar, it has to be with proposed coalitions determined pre-election, and perhaps with a majority bonus if the leading candidate fails to get 50%. Otherwise the same fragmentation that doomed the 90s version of this proposal is likely to continue.


  7. A question – does the Israeli situation reminds you of the Spanish one? You have 2 weak “major” parties; some smaller ones who can potentially join a coalition, but no majority because no one is willing to sit with the “outsiders” (separatists, joint Arab list).

    Per the possibility of B&W tolerating a right wing coalition – this is very much against the political culture in Israel where you are expected to gain something in order to allow a government to come to office.

    Last, what would your thoughts be on an arrangement whereby the head of the largest party after elections gets nominated PM without an investiture vote, and then have the Knesset to options to remove him: a constructive no confidence vote by a majority of the Knesset (i.e. more than 60 supporting a new PM); or a “regular” no confidence / withholding supply resulting immediately with new elections?
    I tend to think such an arrangement would be more likely to produce a stable government – majority of minority – eth more robust major parties.

    • Major party or major coalition? If a coalition counts, and I think it should, must it form before the election or is a post-election coalition acceptable?

      Botswana allows parliamentary candidates to declare who they support as president (usual Southern African confusion about titles where the prime minister serves as head of state). In Botswana the declaration is voluntary and the election is automatic only if a presidential candidate is the declared choice of more than half the National Assembly.

      A better system would be to make the declaration compulsory and allow optional preferences. That should produce at least a default head of government. If there’s a tie for first place give the tied candidates 7 days to sort it themselves or face a random draw.

      • Just for the sake of clarity, I’d think in a Botswana/preferential system you would first count the declared choices by the usual AV/STV rules. The declared choice of a Droop quota of MPs should become head of government without any further decision by the parliament. The declared choice of a plurality of MPs should have the right to meet the parliament and seek a vote of confidence.

      • It would depend on what is the default rule if no candidate for PM has, the morning after election day, the declared support of more than 50% of newly-elected MPs.
        (a) if the fallback is “a runoff among MPs, and if no one has an absolute majority on the first N rounds of balloting, a simple plurality will suffice”, then what incentive is there for an MP to declare before election day? It paints you into a corner and limits your options for emulating the illustrious careers of parliamentary giants like Don Lane https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Lane_(politician)#Switch_to_the_National_Party_(1983) and Brian Austin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Austin.
        (b) on the other hand, if the fallback is “Should not prospective P enjoy declared absolute majority support on election night, the President/ Kaiser/ Sultan may appoint whomever s/he wants as PM” – or if the runoffs shifts to some other body (eg, Electoral College to House or Senate in the USA, popular vote to joint sitting of Congress in Chile before 1973), then an MP retains the most influence over the outcome by declaring early for someone likely to reach the threshold.

  8. “Parties that do not accept the fundamental character of the state rarely get any kind of formalized role in backing a minority government in any democracy. (I invite examples, but I can’t think of any.)”

    This happens in parliamentary systems more than you might think, and in fact sometimes used as an argument against having multiparty systems .

    What generally happens is that the anti-system or semi-system parties abstains on relevant votes in return for concessions.

    Other commentators have already raised the two Cold War Italian examples. I think there are some instances in Germany of state level governments being formed with the tacit support of the post-Communist Left Party which the other parties say they want to exclude from any German government.

    However, the most common examples are with regional separatist parties, which are anti-system parties by definition. Spain provides some examples. In Canada at the federal level there were fairly serious negotiations to form a formal coalition of the Liberals and New Democrats (unusual in itself since coalitions are anathema to Canadian political culture) with the support of the Quebec separatists, which fell apart exactly over the support of the Quebec separatists but it was considered. But the Conservative minority government at the time, often did survive due to deals with the Quebec separatists, they just made sure they were done very quietly.

  9. Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel:

    “The leader of a small party who has gotten the most attention is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former disciple of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Ben-Gvir has a picture in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, the American immigrant who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.

    Ben-Gvir recently struck a deal with the Jewish Home Party to run on a joint slate, an important achievement, because in September, Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party fell short of the 3.25% threshold.

    But last week, pressure mounted, notably from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to have all of the parties to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud run on one slate so all of the right-wing votes would translate into Knesset seats rather than some being wasted. That’s important to Netanyahu because it’s these parties, along with the two ultra-Orthodox parties, that are his natural partners to build a government commanding a majority in parliament.

    In the end, Naftali Bennett, the son of immigrants from San Francisco, who heads the New Right party, forged such a coalition, but he excluded Ben-Gvir, saying he would never agree to share a slate with someone who has a picture in his house of a murderer of 29 innocent people. In a somewhat comical response, Ben-Gvir said he would take down the picture. Apparently lost on him was that it wasn’t the picture, but the ideology behind it that was at issue.

    I don’t see the agony of the past year as a failure of the political system. Israel’s proportional representation system, in which parties get the same share of seats that they got at the polls, is pure democracy. It is not the fault of the system the country is so divided between those supporting Netanyahu and those who want him out of office.”


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